Making what you do explicitly political

Alex Blandford – Medium

Technology is not politically neutral, nor can it be. So making technology choices is also making political choices – about who has power, who has agency, who gets to make choices and who has to act in a context set by choices made by others. Denying the politics of that – asserting that somehow technology is neutral or inevitable – is itself highly political. Digital is political not because there is something odd about digital, but because there is something ubiquitous about politics and political choices.

Given all that, there is a lot to be said for being explicit about it, in part because not being explicit means that some political positions – typically more technocratic ones – can be presented as neutral and beyond question when they are anything but. This post is an explicitly political post about being explicitly political, not in a partisan sense, but as a recognition that how choices are framed is a strong influence on how they get made.

Nesta Radical Futures brief

Sam Villis – OneTeamGov

A picture of a One Team Gov T-Shirt on a stage with One Team Gov bannersAfter 432 posts suggesting strategic reading, the 433rd is an odd one out, with a first suggestion for some strategic writing (or vlogging).

As a contribution to Nesta’s work on radical visions for the future of government, OneTeamGov is crowdsourcing ideas. Contributions are invited from people working in governmen, responding to one of two questions:

What does your work look like in 2030, what has changed and what has stayed the same?
Or,
In the next 10 years what would need to change for you to be able to do your best work on behalf of citizens?

It’s tempting to respond in part with Charlie Stross’s observation that

The near-future is comprised of three parts: 90% of it is just like the present, 9% is new but foreseeable developments and innovations, and 1% is utterly bizarre and unexpected.

That is perhaps a way of linking the two questions together. 2030 is to 2019 as 2019 is to 2008, and just as the bureaucrats of 2008 would not find themselves in a wholly alien world if they were to wake up in 2019, so the world of 2030 may well not be as radically different as some might wish. That brings the focus to versions of the second question – not just what would need to change, but what is the path to changing it, which would give us radically better government in 2030?

Follow the link at the top of this post to contribute your thoughts to the mix.

Making the centre hold: what works?

Tharman Shanmugaratnam – Institute for Government

Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies in the Singapore Government, gave the opening address at the Institute for Government’s tenth anniversary conference last week. The text of his speech [pdf] is at the link above, the video is below.

It’s something of a tour de force, drawing not just on Singapore’s own experience but on evidence and examples from around the world. But what is perhaps most striking is the level of integration of the policy thinking – education, housing, health and more, each seen as facets of the others, and each set in the context of broad social challenges. It is interesting both for the content and for the political and institutional context which makes the content possible. Singapore has some distinctive characteristics, of course, and not everything is or should be replicable or scalable (the management of ministerial careers through generational planning, is just one example), but the challenge of joined up government comes across as less insoluble than it is often perceived to be, with some clear examples of the gains to be had from doing so.

Becoming Prime Minister

Catherine Haddon – Institute for Government

Ministerial time and attention is the scarcest resource in government, prime ministerial time and attention doubly so. An impossibly hard job is then made harder by the circumstances in which people come to it and by the absence of meaningful preparation. This paper is a wholly sensible – and rather timely – attempt to help make the transition easier and the assumption of power more effective. Potential prime ministers would do well to read and act on it.

At the same time, though, it is an implicit acknowledgment of despair. The paper shows a system which works perilously close to the margins of not working at all and a concentration of responsibility and expectations for which preparation is not just inadequate but which it is hard to see how it could be made adequate. None of that is going to change any time soon, of course, so the need for this kind of pragmatic incrementalism is very real. But there is a much bigger and much more difficult debate waiting in the shadows behind it.

Introducing Missing Numbers: a blog on the data the government should collect, but doesn’t

Anna Powell-Smith – Missing Numbers

Sometimes what is missing can be as telling as what is present. The availability of data drives what can be said, what can be understood and what can be proposed. So the absence of data can all too easily lead to an absence of attention – and of course, even where there is attention, to an absence of well informed debate and decision making. So there is something important and powerful about looking for the gaps and trying to fill them. This new blog is trying to do exactly that and will be well worth keeping an eye on.

Radical Visions of Future Government

Tom Symons – Nesta

Nesta wants to reimagine government, and invites anybody to have a go. This post is a call for contributions, looking beyond the immediate constraints of austerity (explicitly) and Brexit (implicitly).

We are interested in views which challenge existing orthodoxies, as well as those which take current trends, technologies or ideas to a new frontier. For the purposes of this collection, we have no fixed view of what future government should look like. We bring an open mind and hope to be challenged and surprised.

The challenge is a good one and it will be interesting to see what ideas emerge. Some, no doubt, will be visionary descriptions of what might be possible, of what ambitions we might set for ourselves. But it would be a good balance if some at least also contained an account of how it might be possible to get there from here.

Street lighting in suburban London: a parable for digital government

Richard Pope – Platform Land

A history of street lighting in Croydon might not seem like immediately compelling reading. But both the history and the parallels with digital government are unexpectedly fascinating.

A few points stand out. The first is the retrospective inevitability of commoditisation. The parallel between electricity networks and data networks may seem obvious, how far that moves up the stack and with what consequences is rather less so (because less of that had happened yet).

The second is a different way of coming at a question which has arisen around digital public services pretty much from their first appearance: does a model of government drive the design of online services, or does the building of online services drive thinking about government?

And the third is a good reminder that changing and modernising can be much harder than building from scratch, and that for governments more than most, the new is almost invariably intertwined with the old.

Government as a Platform, the hard problems: part 1 — Introduction

Richard Pope – Platform Land

The idea of describing things in terms of stacks is a familiar one in the worlds of technology and of operating models. It’s not such a familiar way of describing government, though it’s an idea with an honourable history, including Mark Foden’s essential summary in his gubbins video.

This post is a trailer for a series of forthcoming posts under the banner of Platform Land, which promises to be compelling reading. That promise rests in part on the recognition in this introduction of the fact that governments are both organisations with much in common with other kinds of organisation and at the same time organisations with some very specific characteristics which go well beyond service delivery:

Considerations of safety, accountability, and democracy must at all times be viewed as equal to considerations of efficiency.

The emergence of government platforms represents a new way of organizing the work of government. As such, the task at hand is not to understand how we patch existing systems of government, but of how we adapt to something new that will come with its own set of opportunities and challenges, risks and prizes.

On tribalism in politics

Jamie Susskind

Politicians are unusual people. One of the ways in which they are unusual is that they have a tendency to be very strongly tribal. Another is that that makes it easy for them to think that that is normal. Politicians of one tribe in some ways find it easier to understand (and in some ways respect) politicians of a competing tribe than they do people whose instincts are less tribal.

This post (originally a series of tweets) is a reflection by somebody once of one of the tribes who now sees political tribalism as a big problem. There’s food for thought here both for members of the tribes and for those who seek to understand and work with them. That latter category includes, of course, non-political public servants who work with politicians and in political systems. They (we) are the very opposite of tribal (in this category of tribes – there are of course many others). At its best, that’s a powerful symbiosis, at its worst it’s a recipe for deep confusion and mutual misunderstanding.

Machine Learning Meets Public Policy: What to Expect and How to Cope

Ed Felten

This is the video of a conference talk by Ed Felten, which is fascinating for a number of reason. He has been thinking hard about technology and the policy consequences of technology for a very long time, and doing so with deep technical expertise (on the explicability of algorithms, to take just one example).

But he also has been at the heart of the intersection of technology and public policy – a one man One Team Government – including a couple of years in the Obama White House. This talk is primarily about how machine learning lands in a public policy context and is immediately addressed to an audience at a big AI conference, whose perspective can be assumed to be technical.

Given that, the starting point is to underline a critical difference in perspective. At least in principle, science and engineering are about a search for truth. Democracy is not just not a search for truth, it is not really a search for anything. And that difference is simultaneously obvious, a strength and a source of deep confusion and misunderstanding

Democracy is not a search for truth; it is an algorithm for resolving disagreements

But this talk is interesting not just to an audience of technologist having the world of public policy explained by one of their own who has ventured into a strange and distant land. Given the importance of AI and machine learning – and indeed technology change more generally – to almost every aspect of policy, it is jut as important for policy makers and players in the democratic process to understand how their world is perceived. And from that perspective, this is a fascinating account of a strange world by a participant-observer who has retained his distance and brings a distinct professional perspective.

Government and digital technologies: the collision of two galaxies

Mark Foden

This is thinking at epic scale.

Consider the Milky Way crashing into Andromeda in about four billion years from now, taking another billion years to establish some form of stability.

Now consider the unstoppable force of technological (and social change) colliding with the established cultures and practices of government.

Now reflect on how good a metaphor the first is for the second. There’s probably less than four billions years to wait until we find out.

Real-time government

Richard Pope – Platform Land

New writing from Richard Pope is always something to look out for: he has been thinking about and doing the intersection of digital and government more creatively and for longer than most. This post is about the myriad ways in which government is not real time – you can’t track the progress of your benefit claim in anything like the way in which you can track your Amazon delivery. And conversely, at any given moment, Amazon has a very clear picture of who its active customers are and what they are doing, in a way which is rather less true of operators of government services.

He is absolutely right to make the point that many services would be improved if they operated – or at least conveyed information – in real time, and he is just as right that converted (rather than transformed) paper processes and overnight batch updates account for some of that. So it shouldn’t detract from his central point to note that some of his examples are slightly odd ones, which may come from an uncharacteristic confusion between real time and event triggered. There is a notification to potential school leavers of their new national insurance number – but since children’s sixteenth birthdays are highly predictable, that notification doesn’t need to be real time in the sense meant here.  It was very useful to be told that my passport was about to expire – but since they were helpfully giving me three months’ notice, the day and the hour of the message was pretty immaterial.

Of course there are government services which should operate on less leisurely cycles than that, and of course those services should be as fast and as transparent as they reasonably can be. But perhaps the real power of real-time government is from the other side, less in shortening the cycle times of service delivery and much more in shortening the cycle times of service improvement.

Is Estonia the Silicon Valley of digital government?

Rainer Kattel and Ines Mergel – UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

The story of how Estonia became the most e of e-governments is often told, but often pretty superficially and often with an implied – or even explicit – challenge to everybody else to measure themselves and their governments against the standard set by Estonia and despair. This post provides exactly the context which is missing from such accounts: Estonia is certainly the result of visionary leadership, which at least in principle could be found anywhere, but it is also the result of some very particular circumstances which can’t simply be copied or assumed to be universal. There is also a hint of the question behind Solow’s paradox: the real test is not the implementation of technology, but the delivery of better outcomes.

None of that is to knock Estonia’s very real achievements, but yet again to make clear that the test of the effectiveness of technology is not a technological one.

The Fast-Follower Strategy for Technology in Government

David Eaves and Ben McGuire – Governing

Governments should move slowly and try not to break things. That’s a suggestion slightly contrary to the fashionable wisdom in some quarters, but has some solid reasoning behind it. There are good reasons for governments not to be leading edge adopters – government services should work; innovation is not normally a necessary counter to existential threats; service users are not able to trade stability for excitement.

That’s not an argument against innovation, but it is an argument for setting pace and risk appropriately. As a result, this post argues, the skills government needs are less to do cutting edge novelty, and much more to do with identifying and adopting innovations from elsewhere.

Interview in Offscreen Magazine

Tom Loosemore

Behind this remarkably anodyne headline is some compelling reading. This interview tracks Tom’s working life over more than twenty years, but in doing so is hugely illuminating about the intellectual, moral, and political history of digital public services, up to and beyond the creation of the Government Digital Service. As ever, understanding how we got here is indispensable to a good understanding of where we are.

The interview very clearly brings out why it was important for GDS to be set up in the way that it was, needing to avoid the existential risk of getting trapped by the inertia of large organisations.

The idea was to build a bubble in which the main strategy was delivery: let’s deliver great stuff so quickly that bureaucracy can’t catch us.

It also shows how important it has been (and continues to be) to put creative effort into making things which had been obscure more visible, in ways which shift the balance of power away from institutions and towards individuals. That recognition may though have obscured the extent to which that can only be a part of what people need from government. – which is perhaps one reason why the original emphasis of GDS was so much on better information provision, with the recognition of the importance of government as service provider only coming later.

Then we realised that the real heart of public services isn’t just providing information, it’s transactional service […] It’s great to have a website that tells you what to do, but doing the thing, that’s the actual service. And that’s a much harder problem to solve.

Perhaps the most powerful point – and one still not sufficiently recognised – is the recognition that modern, effective and efficient government is not the same as uniform, self-service and largely invisible government.

In government the risk of ‘designing for people like us’ is much greater than for most businesses. Many of us are in a position from where we see anything government-related as a hassle. We want it to disappear or reduce the friction of government interaction to zero. I think that’s a dangerous over-simplification, because the people who really need government the most don’t want the government to disappear. Quite the opposite. For those who are really struggling – and it could be any one of us at some point in our lives – the government is a safety net, and that safety net cannot be invisible nor completely frictionless. We need to facilitate a proper relationship between someone with a difficult problem and a public servant.

Of course the reason why teams such as GDS and its comparators in governments around the world need to be set up to subvert the stodgy institutions of government is precisely that they are stodgy. No doubt influenced by the audience of the magazine in which the interview first appealed, the heroes of the battle against the stodge turn out to be tech people

We need people to go in there and ruffle some feathers, show good leadership, and inject a new culture. If the machine rejects you, fine, try another way in or do something else. As someone working in tech you’re not going to struggle to find a new job, really.

There is a very real danger of hubris in that attitude, not so much from Tom himself, but from many who have followed him into (and often back out of) government. The policy traditions of government undoubtedly need to absorb the shock of digital, but that won’t be successful on a sustainable basis unless those who embody the digital perspective also make the effort to understand government, politics, and public services.

Do you think an improvement in service delivery is enough to regain the public’s confidence in government and politics in general?

That’s our only bloody hope!

Government service delivery needs to improve, for all the reasons Tom argues for. But that is far from being our only hope, and seeing it as such risks missing something important about government – what it is, as well as what it does.

Designers as power brokers

Stephen McCarthy

If designers can redistribute power, the choices they make are political – the distribution of power, and the choices it enables, being fundamentally what politics is about.

That is, of course, true regardless of whether designers recognise or acknowledge that that is what they are doing. This post does make – and celebrate – that acknowledgment, without perhaps fully following through the implications. The claim is a strong one:

As a designer in government my role is to give power to those people who often feel disempowered.

Giving power to the powerless is not a self-evidently neutral ambition. Digital is inescapably political.

That’s not to say that that ambition is wrong or is one that designers should not pursue – or even that expressing it in those terms is necessarily politically controversial. But “to redress the balance between the powerful and the disempowered in our society” is inescapably political – and so leaves us with the question of whose choice that is or should be.

The End of the Beginning of Digital Service Units

David Eaves and Ben McGuire – digital HKS

This interesting post steps back from the detail of digital teams in governments around the world to ask in a more general way where to go next. Once the team has been established, once the early battles won, once the first examples of what better looks like have been produced, once at least some form of stable existence has been achieved – what then?

The post is partly a reflection on ways of embedding change in government – by exerting control, or by building consensus – and partly a recognition that some of these teams, including the GDS in the UK, are facing both the easiest and the hardest stage of their existence. Easiest because a degree of maturity has been established, delivery has been demonstrated, and the voices suggesting that the whole thing is a waste of time are quieter and fewer. But hardest because those early deliveries have a tendency to be superficial (which is not at all to say simple or easy): they sit on top of structures and functions of government which remain fundamentally unchanged. That’s been apparent from early on – this post, for example, argued six years ago that the superstructure cannot determine the base. That mattered less in the early days, because there were other things to do, but is critical to the future of government.

And that’s more or less where Eaves and McGuire end up too:

Behind us is the hard part of starting up. Today is about building capital and capacity. What’s next in the mid term…? A long slow battle over what the structure and shape of government will look like. And making progress on that I fear will be infinitely more difficult and painful than improving services on a project by project basis.

Digital Transformation at Scale – a review

Matthew Cain

It’s probably not news to most readers that some of the leading creators of the Government Digital Service have written a book. Many have been swift to observe the apparent irony that the book in question has been published only on paper, with no digital version available. That’s a fairly major obstacle fort those of us with a strong preference for the latter.

But now an alternative solution presents itself, in the form of a thorough and balanced review by Matthew Cain. The creation of GDS by Mike Bracken and his team was an enormous achievement and, despite its detractors, much good continues to be done there well after the first generation of pioneers moved on. But the founders’ vision was a narrower one than they ever quite acknowledged and the government context in which they found themselves was more unusual than they realised – or as Matthew puts it, ‘The section on political sponsorship basically tells readers to have a political sponsor called Francis Maude.’

Update: 22 June 2018

The publisher have helpfully made contact to share the good news that the book is now available on kindle, and apparently is due to appear in other formats. But that leaves unanswered the perennial mystery of why publishers find it so much harder to produce electrons than paper.

 

Democratic technical debt

Alex Blandford – Medium

The modern surge of digital government has many strengths, but it also has a central weakness. It tends to assume (usually without noticing that it has done so) that the central relationship between individual and state is that between a service user and a service provider. That relationship does, of course, exist and making it work better is vitally important. But if that’s all there is to it, we risk creating something more atomised and more shallow than it could be or should be.

There are two missing pieces from that service led view. One is that the role of a government service user goes beyond the specific interaction or transaction of the moment. The other is that there are legitimate interests in the service and how it is provided which goes well beyond those who are specific users of it. Systems have democratic and social value, as well as transactional value, and to miss that is to miss something important.

This post explores the implications of that in one specific way, as well as more generally. Building on the idea of technical and organisational debt, now democratic debt comes into the mix as well. The slightly unexpected specific point which comes from that is the importance of thinking about user research differently, and recognising that cumulatively it represents a corpus of social research which beyond its immediate use is almost invariably unpublished, unseen and thus unusable. The challenge is to find a way of curating and using that research and the insights it has generated to drive down democratic debt.

Making public policy in the digital age

Richard Pope and Andrew Greenway – digital HKS

It’s worth looking out for things written by either of these authors, something written by both of them should be doubly worthwhile. There is indeed lots of extremely sensible advice in this piece – and that is so despite all that advice being built on a slightly questionable assumption. Good digital services, they tell us, are iterated daily, or better still hourly. Bad policy development, by contrast, is a long and painful process. The solution is obvious: if policy making were more like digital service iteration, the world would be a better place.

That thought is not wholly wrong. Smarter, faster, better policy making should indeed be everybody’s aim, and the suggestions made here are generally good ones. But it doesn’t follow that policy and service design are somehow interchangeable, or as they put it, “the policy is the service is the institution”. Designing policy to be deliverable and adaptable is indeed important, but so is designing policy to be socially and politically effective. Evidence gathering, consultation, legislation and evaluation can be frustratingly slow, but that doesn’t mean that they are best dispensed with. Policy is about service design, but the set of users of a policy is often much broader than the set of users of the service through which it is expressed, and both those perspectives matter.